Some babble about genre & categorization

Since reading this fantastic conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, ideas about genre and what makes one thing “fantasy” while another very similar thing is “horror” or even the esteemed “literature” have been rolling around my brain. I plopped myself in the middle of this very problem this week when I was met with delightful pain in the butt of trading my old, crappy Target shelf for a bigger, wooden one that used to live in my neighborhood bookstore. (Until the owner decided to close it – sniffle.) My genius self got the bright idea to actually organize my books by genre for real this time when I re-shelved them.

I’d had these thoughts before – what book nerd hasn’t? – but had always quickly abandoned the idea as something to do “someday when I had more books or perhaps a library of my very own.” Out of necessity, I have a few things already separated on my other set of shelves. Childrens books, poetry, my hefty collection of Norton anthologies and other beefy grad school books, Beatles books (because I wrote my undergrad thesis on them, I have several and some of the books are super tall), comics & graphic novels and a few beloved authors have their very own sections. My main bookshelf remained organized alphabetically, so basically, not organized at all. So anyway, organizing by genre.

I’m sitting in the floor of my lair, surrounded by piles of books, moving them into other piles and mostly wondering what the hell I was thinking with this genius plan when I realize I could just start with fiction and non-fiction. That’s pretty straightforward, right? NOPE. Not when you have Plato and Socrates and Rousseau complicating your life with their sort-of fictionalized tellings of their concrete philosophical beliefs. Sigh. So, okay. Fine. Philosophy, religion, politics, you go together. I gave up trying to separate memoir from essays and threw those together, too. Working my way through the nonfiction, however, was a piece of delicious cake compared to those fiction piles. I mean, seriously, what do you do with Toni Morrison? (She should totally have her own shelf anyway, why did this only just occur to me? Dummy.), David Mitchell, hell, even Watership Down & Black Beauty confused me. So, basically, I gave up. I sorted out plays and ancient works, gave folk tales and mythologies their own area and the rest, I split this way: contains a magical / supernatural element and does not. Don’t even get me started on Young Adult as a classification. They go with all the other books! Because it’s my bookshelf, dammit, and it sort of makes sense to me to do it this way.

But still, how do these things get sorted? And what exactly does the age of the book have to do with it? Because at some point, things like Frankenstein and The Turn of the Screw just become “Classics.” Then there are sub-genres. It’s madness. We have gone too far, humans. I get that it’s in our very nature to need to be able to sort and categorize anything to understand what to do with it, but when we’re so far down this dumbass path that we can’t just classify Jenny Slate’s stand-up special as “Stand-up Comedy” on Netflix, it also has to be listed under “Funny Ladies,” we need to take several steps back.

Because way beyond trying to figure out if I should put Rebecca under mystery, horror, romance or gothic, there’s a contingent who’d probably say it should just go under “women.” But, really, “women,” “African American,” “Gay & Lesbian” and other such identifiers are not genres. They are categories, I guess, but just because something is written by a woman or has characters who are gay and/or not white does not mean it is similar to another book written by a woman or containing gay and/or not white characters. I understand both sides here, with regard to noting that a book is written by a person of color, or is about LGBTQ characters or themes, because those things are not immediately apparent by reading a book title or an author’s name. It’s handy to think, I’d like to read more books by hispanic writers and their experiences, so let me do a search for that. That’s a good and useful thing.

The problem for me is the lumping together of things simply because they feature or are written by a minority person, which, really is what happens. “Straight, white male” will never be a category because it is still our dumbass cultural default. But “Woman” is not a genre. Kelly Link and Rainbow Rowell will never be classified together, or near Charlotte Brontë, for that matter. They don’t write the same type of things. Just because they both happen to be female does not in any way mean they write similarly. Unless by “similarly,” we mean “really well.”

I don’t mean to suggest we stop pointing out that books, art, movies, etc. are created by or feature minorities – it’s important to note that, especially when the thing is good. Realizing this and paying attention to it and thinking about it all is an important step in breaking down the default. The default should be “human” – full stop. That’s it, that’s the thing we have in common. And understanding that means that we’re all the same and we’re all different. Skin color or gender or sexual orientation are categories of human, sure, but they are not definitive. They are not genres of art, however. Saying this book is “horror” tells me something about it. Saying it’s “woman” tells me, uh, there are lady protagonists or it was written by a lady?

I am basically babbling, at this point, so I suppose I’ll end. This stuff is tricky, but important to ponder and talk about, I think. The answer to gender / racial / human equality certainly is not to erase or ignore those differences – it’s to acknowledge and celebrate them. Those are important things that inform individual experiences, and naturally we want to see those parts of ourselves and others represented, but they aren’t the only things that define people or art, by any means.

If you’ve made it this far in the ranting, uh, thanks? I’m sorry? does any of this make sense? Do you have thoughts on this?


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